Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump followed right-wing media’s lead by connecting Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton to former Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV) to mitigate the accusations that he is racist and has stoked racial tension. Conservatives have invoked Byrd’s past affiliation with the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) for years to deflect from accusations of bigotry in the Republican Party, despite Byrd’s disavowal of his involvement with the hate group and his dedication of the rest of his life to atoning for his mistakes and supporting legislation to help minorities.
After Clinton’s August 25 speech linking Trump to the “radical fringe” and accusing him of embracing a philosophy of “make America hate again,” Trump responded in an August 27 tweet, quoting supporters who lashed out at CNN for failing to mention that Clinton had once “said a KKK member was her mentor.” CNN confirmed that the supporters “referred to the last West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd, a former KKK member whom Clinton mourned in 2010 as ‘a true American original, my friend and mentor.’”
Right-wing media -- including Breitbart News and WND -- were quick to highlight the connection between Clinton and Byrd after her speech in an attempt to downplay her accusations against Trump. Independent Journal’s Frank Camp asserted that Clinton “can beat the drum against Trump over and over again, but her relationship with Senator Byrd may make those appeals ring hollow for some.” InfoWars claimed that Clinton and her campaign were “conveniently leaving out the fact that Hillary herself described Robert Byrd – a KKK leader who once called black people ‘mongrels,’ as her ‘friend and mentor.’” CNN political commentator Scottie Nell Hughes accused Clinton of having “a long track record ... of bias” because she “praised Senator Byrd.”
This attempt at deflection is a familiar one for conservatives. In 2005, author and political analyst Earl Ofari Hutchinson explained in a Huffington Post piece that “Whenever a Republican makes a racial foot-in-the mouth gaffe, and Democrats publicly lambaste him for it, GOP leaders quickly and reflexively scream, ‘But what about Byrd,’ and pound the Democrats for having a former Klansman as a top Democrat.” However, Hutchinson noted that this flawed canard “makes Republicans seem disingenuous at best and racial hypocrites at worst” because “Byrd flirted with the Klan six decades ago” and Republicans, like Trump “flirted with them, in the past, and still do today.”
The Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart more recently pointed out that this conservative deflection is also flawed because Byrd “admitted his mistake and atoned for it in public and in policy.” The NAACP even mourned Byrd’s death in 2010 saying that he “went from being an active member of the KKK to a being a stalwart supporter of the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act and many other pieces of seminal legislation that advanced the civil rights and liberties of our country.”